Monday, 10 September 2012

How abusive are Virgin Trains?

I write this blog still smarting from an unpleasant experience yesterday on Virgin Trains, what I would call an abuse of power if I am stretching a point, when I had to pay twice for a train ticket from London Euston back to Macclesfield with my family.

Abuse of power is my day to day work as a child abuse lawyer. I have a very strong sense of justice, and dislike intensely the narrow administration of rules, bureaucracy, and lack of discretion in appropriate circumstances. I come across it daily in my dealings with Courts, and the Legal Services Commission. I now realise that with the growth of large faceless organisations, so comes an impersonal lack of kindness and sympathy.

Years ago, children were abused by those in power, went along with it, then spend years regretting their inaction, when invited to take part in sexual activities with an adult. They all wish they had been stronger, refused, and not gone along with his/her wishes. Thankfully, I am older, wiser, perhaps less patient, and was able to vent my spleen at the Virgin ticket inspector in question. Sadly it did me no good, and probably squashed any discretion which she may have been willing to endow. Quite honestly, I don't think that the word discretion appeared in her vocabulary.

I will tell you what happened.

It was a lovely weekend in London. We had seen the most amazing "Les Miserables" at the Queens Theatre, and stayed with friends. Somewhat tired we headed for Euston station. The traffic was appalling, it being the last day of the Paralympics. We missed the train by a minute!

We had booked an advance first class ticket which could not be changed. In naivety, it being a Sunday afternnoon, and not too busy I thought they may let us off? We decided to get the next train which was 20 minutes later. When I got to the barrier, I was met with a very stoney faced young ticket inspector. No plesantries,  just.

"You can't travel on this train you willl have to buy another ticket sir."
"How much?"
After machine twiddling "£194 for the three of you sir". I had paid just a little more than that for return tickets First Class.
"Is that the First Class price?"
"No sir, would you like to upgrade?" At that I got sarcastic, and told my wife, who was trying to calm me down, to let the ticket inspector rip us off because that was her job, and no wonder Virgin had lost the franchise. My wife pulled me away, and we got on the train.

We realised she had overcharged us by giving us a Manchester ticket. We sat in first class thinking another ticket inspector may let us off. Who should turn up? - the same officious young lady, wearing, I noticed, army boots. Who wears army boots in 30 degrees centrigade? Yes it was very hot too.

"Did you change your mind about the upgrade sir?"

I had deputised my wife to talk, as there was steam coming out of my ears. We paid the reduced price of £175, not the upgrade to First Class, and were asked if we needed help carrying our bags though 5 carriages out of First Class into economy. I was muttering that I enjoyed paying twice for one train journey, and would have been able to travel to Alicante for the same price with Easy Jet.

So that is the price you pay for being firstly angry, and secondly falling for a bargain. I have been travelling to London regularly for the last 18 years, and witnessed the price treble when Virgin took over. The food changed from a full silver service dinner to very small snack meal, then sandwiches. The service is usually good, but the profit maximised. I have seen the island which Branson owns in the Carribean. I think I have nearly paid for it.

I am sure my child abuse clients felt angry when abuse of power befell them, but in a much more serious way of course. I have got over my anger now, because I was able to give a little of what I got. Sadly, they never did, and regret it for the rest of their life.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

How many paedophiles are there at the Paralympics?

The tide of emotion flooding over the paralympics is inspiring and euphoric. We watch many supreme athletes achieving the most incredible feats of unbelievable strength and bravery. Whilst watching Ellie Simmonds win the 400 metre Freestyle in the pool, I marvelled at the fact that she produced more reserves of strength than most of us can manage in a lifetime. At the end of the race, she could hardly speak for tears of joy. When she was presented with her award, it was obvious that she was the same height standing up as her competitors were sitting down, yet she managed to beat them all. What a triumph.

I am frequently laughed at by my daughter for being tearful at various television programmes, particularly "Britain's got Talent". I never expected to become dewy eyed when watching a sporting event. Quite honestly I find the Paralympics more entertaining and inspirational than the mainstream event. There is no doubt in my mind that the disabled have more metaphorical hurdles to jump than their able bodied counterparts.

So what is the point of this blog? Sadly there is always a dark side to everything. Particularly if you are a child abuse lawyer. We always look for the flaw in everything. Why be creative when you can be destructive?

There are many statistics which show that disabled children, and vulnerable adults are much more likely to be targetted for abuse. Think about it. They are less able to defend themselves, and less likely to be able to give evidence in Court.  Figures vary, but a rough statistic shows that a disabled person is almost twice as likely to be abused than the able bodied. You can read more on the NSPCC site here

The question is how vigilant are the officials when there are so many vulnerable people gathered together? Whilst there are coaches to watch over the individuals, child protection officers, a paralympic policy on the subject, and thankfully more awareness of the risks now than at any time in history, what an attraction to the dedicated child sex offender?

To quote the Safe Network "Officials have confirmed that 2012 Paralympics will be the biggest ever with over 4,000 competitors from 165 countries competing. Athletes as young as 12 will be competing, so it is more important than ever that sufficent procedures are in place to safeguard young competitors." The NSPCC sell their own booklet entitled "Safeguarding deaf and disabled children in sport"

The competitors are highly stressed, away from home, full of adrenalin, and focussed on their event. Will they be turning their mind to the risk of grooming and entrapment? Some of them will be seeing the glories of London, riches beyond their wildest dreams. Some of them come from countries where the disabled are pilloried by society, and given no welfare help whatsoever. Compared to the United Kingdom, home must seem like Dickensian London .

So imagine the scenario. The disabled child is allowed a wild card entry because of the dreadful conditions at home. He/she stands no chance of winning not only because of the standard of their equipment, but also the lack of investment in them at home. They have incredible talent. They come last in their event, and the Paralympics are nearly over. They feel down, and don't want to go home.

A nice man says he is acting on behalf of a major sponsor, who is looking to invest in foreign paralympic athletes. He offers accomodation, regular contact with home, genuine looking papers, and a flashing smile. He seems credible. The disabled athlete has a choice. Stay here in luxury, or go home to poverty and discrimination. What choice is there?

What if the promises do not materialise? No rights, an illegal immigrant with barely any English is sucked into the sex offender's world of intrigue.

I apologise for my cynicism. I really hope it doesn't happen. Sadly, I fear it may become a reality. I hope that I do not receive instructions of this type. If I do, I will fight for their rights.